This final episode was longer than usual, although there were less feature-length instalments compared to the last series. “Black Museum” reminded me of 2014’s excellent “White Christmas” special, as it likewise told three stories interlinked by an enigmatic figure at the centre of things. It didn’t do this anywhere near as succinctly, but it was still nevertheless lots of fun.
I enjoyed the backbone of this episode, as it began with young British tourist Nish (Letitia Wright) happening across the titular ‘Black Museum’ somewhere in rural America, adjacent to a roadside garage where she’s charging her electric car.
Inside she meets the proprietor Rolo Haynes (Penny Dreadful’s Douglas Hodge), a twisted version of Robert Ripley from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not! fame. Or a psychotic P.T Barnum. He owns a museum of curiosities, or “authentic criminal artefacts”, familiar from appearing in various twisted tales Black Mirror’s delivered.
Haynes gives Nish, his only customer (perhaps in a long while), a personal guided tour of the museum and its contents, narrating three tales to illustrate a few of the items that take her interest.
It began with a vignette inspired by an unpublished short story by illusionist Penn Jillette called “Pain Addict”, which he apparently described to Brooker over dinner together. The story involves Haynes himself, who was once a respected neurological researcher, but the story truly belongs to Peter Dawson (Daniel Lapaine), a doctor with an implant that allows him to experience the sensations of other people.
This proves invaluable when trying to diagnose patients on his busy ward, as Dawson just plugs himself into their brains and figures out what’s wrong by experiencing the symptoms first-hand. It doesn’t even cause him any physical harm… however, as Nish wisely assumes, “there’s a but…”
And, indeed, Lapaine becomes addicted to feelings of extreme pain and terror, particularly after experiencing the euphoria of a massive endorphin hit when one patient dies under his care. It’s a simple but brutally effective idea, and it was interesting seeing how the doctor’s good intentions result in him becoming a very disturbed human being.
Asking to get a little rough in the bedroom with his wife is one thing, but delaying diagnoses so you can savour a patient’s suffering, or resorting to mutilating yourself as you try and go cold turkey from the implant, is something else. This story wouldn’t have worked as a full episode, hence it’s inclusion in this ‘anthology within the anthology’, but it’s an effective slice of cyber-horror that fits what “Black Museum” wanted to achieve very well.
The second tale was the more developed of the three, but had distracting similarities to Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017), which is often described as having a Black Mirror vibe to it. Others have noticed Karl Pilkington predicted this story, or perhaps Brooker listens to Ricky Gervais podcasts…
In the tale, a comatose woman called Carrie (Alexandra Roach) has her consciousness transferred into the mind of her husband Jack (Aldis Hodge), where she resides in an environment similar to the ‘Sunken Place’ from Get Out.
It seems like a positive way for Carrie to continue to live vicariously through her spouse, experiencing life by sharing in his senses. But this arrangement soon becomes a problem, as the couple start to bicker over how to raise their young son. Carrie also isn’t best pleased when Jack adds a ‘pause’ function so he can begin a long relationship with a neighbour, that Carrie skips over in the blink of an eye. By the end, the story has taken a darker turn involving Black Mirror’s version of a possessed doll (or stuffed monkey in this case), which I thought was more troubling than the meat of the story.
As mentioned, there’s unavoidable crossover with Get Out in this narrative, as both stories involve white people being inserted into the mind’s of black people, but it lacks the social depth and psychological complexity of Peele’s incredible movie. There are some key differences (Carrie doesn’t have any control of her host’s body, for instance), but it’s possible Brooker even noticed the similarities because there’s a fun moment when Jack’s reading a graphic novel of ‘15 Million Merits’ — the Black Mirror story Get Out’s Daniel Kaluuya starred in. Of course, both stories also have a strong theme of black suffering, as the situation isn’t exactly fun for Jack, who has his “ex” rattling around in his head.
While there wasn’t anything here that was broke new ground for the series, it still contained enough disturbing ideas to make you glad this kind of technology doesn’t exist. One has to wonder why Jack thought it would ever be a great idea in the first place!
Finally, “Black Museum” is loosely tied together by the last part. This story is shallower than the previous two, concerning a black man on Death Row called Clayton Leigh (Babs Olusanmokun), who’s offered a fortune by Haynes to have his mind digitally copied before his execution. Clayton goes through with the process to provide for his family after he’s gone, thinking he has nothing much to lose, and is overjoyed to find himself “reborn” as a hologram after being sent to the electric chair.
Unfortunately, Rolo Haynes’s true motive is to make Clayton his star attraction at the Black Museum: a realistic 3D simulation of a prisoner that customers can gleefully zap in the electric chair to witness his execution at close range. Who cares that poor Clayton’s experiencing this horror time and time again like it was really happening, eh?
Sometimes you have to wonder if the sickos of Black Mirror are actually the common folk who exist on the sidelines and treat this stuff as normal. I considered it was possible they don’t known Clayton is more than a simulation, but that doesn’t explain why they take a memento of their visit as a keyring copy of Clayton stuck in perpetual torment.
There’s a twist to the episode that brings the last two stories into step with the present day situation with Haynes and Nish, which I won’t spoil here, but it gave everything a dollop of cohesion. This really did feel like “White Christmas” part two, in terms of how it was assembled, and the episode only really suffered from the fact two of the vignettes were riffs on ideas Black Mirror has covered before. Sometimes intentionally so, but still…
Series 4 had interesting areas to explore, but as this series ages it’s becoming clearer that Brooker has at least three topical buttons he can’t resist pushing. It won’t be too long before his tricks becomes sorely predictable, if they haven’t already for some viewers who have started parodying how Black Mirror tends to behave. Two of the more common twists is that events are taking place inside a computer simulation of some description, or that digital clones are subjected to an eternity of torture inside a machine. The latter popped up twice in this finale alone!
Still, for all its fault, “Black Museum” was a real crowdpleaser because it confirms many of these stories are taking place in the same universe. The museum’s exhibits are taken from previous episodes: a DNA scanner (with half-eaten lollipop) from “USS Callister”, a tablet from “Arkangel”, a robot bee from “Hated in the Nation”, a costume from “White Bear”, the bloodstained bathtub from “Crocodile”, and it seems likely those a wall of plaster faces are cast from behind-the-scenes folk.
The idea these separate nightmares are happening in the same world makes sense, just about, although I don’t know if applying an all-encompassing “universe” to Black Mirror is the right way to go. Part of the show’s appeal was the idea thar anything could happen because each episode is unbound by rules or continuity, but now viewers may immediately wonder where in “the timeline” each story is taking place.